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In 1650 the distinguished church historian Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland announced his meticulously calculated time of the Creation: early Saturday evening, 22 October 4004 B.C.E., a date immortalized in the margins of countless Bibles for nearly three centuries. Among evangelical Protestants who believed in the inerrancy of Scripture this date came to mark the beginning of human history. For some believers it remained a landmark until the late twentieth century; others abandoned it as early as the 1860s. Among American evangelicals no one played a more important role in discrediting Ussher's chronology than William Henry Green, an Old Testament scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary. One of Green's Princeton colleagues called his demonstration of Ussher's fallacy “the most important biblical discovery of our time.” In some ways it was, although its full impact did not come until the second half of the twentieth century.
Biblical Interpretation and the Construction of Christian Sexualities
Within the past decade or so, historical studies of early Christianity have been affected by what has been called the “linguistic turn.” This development has entailed a new appreciation of the varied forms of Christian “discourse” and their importance in shaping the cultural, political, and social worlds of late antiquity. For example, historians of religion and culture, such as Judith Perkins and Kate Cooper, have drawn attention to the way in which narrative representation in early Christian literature functioned to construct Christian identities and to negotiate power relations both within the church and in society at large. It has become increasingly difficult for historians to ignore the power of rhetoric in shaping the imaginative (and, therefore, real) worlds of late ancient Christians.
That feminine metaphors dominate Bernard of Clairvaux's treatment of the contemplative soul who as loving Bride marries Christ in prayerful ecstasy, and as Mother nurtures the world in active service, is indisputable. And much has been made in recent years of the significance of a medieval male “assuming” the role of the female, both in relation to society at large and in relation to God. These latter arguments might be summarized by the claims that the appropriation of feminine images to the medieval male self is frequently either a conscious play on cultural stereotypes to signal spiritual renunciation or the rejection of worldly values, or reflects a need, whether conscious or unconscious, for psychological integration of the feminine and masculine in the lives of those confined to a homo-social world. In Bernard's Bride, then, we discover either the male appropriation of feminine weakness as a sign of spiritual strength or the rational male appropriation of the counterbalancing feminine virtue of affective love. What has not been recognized, however, is the possibility that the figure of the Bride in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs might function paradoxically as a “virile woman,” a female “figure” or type who serves appropriately to represent the highest spiritual attainments of the human soul (whether of biological male or female), precisely because she has overcome any stereotypically “womanly” weaknesses and become typologically “male” or “virile.” Our interpretation of this seminal figure must thus not only take into account the confluence of masculine and feminine in her nature in ways we have not previously suspected. We must also consider the paradoxical reality that this figure may simultaneously represent a soul who is virtuous for having renounced male privilege and become a weak woman and a soul who is valorized for having overcome feminine weakness and become virile. It is this thesis that I will argue in what follows.
The arduous task of queering the Song of Songs, a book that is ostensibly an unequivocal celebration of male-female sexual love, was accomplished over many centuries by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (as well as by Jewish Sages of blessed memory, though they were hampered by a modesty and restraint to which their Christian cousins were seldom subject). Night after night in their cells, by flickering candlelight, they queeried the Song of Solomon, strenuously inquiring after its spiritual meaning and confidently setting it forth. And as they did so their austere cells were transformed into lavish theaters. What follows is a series of preliminary portraits of some of the more remarkable performers.
From the second half of the eleventh century, medieval Latin theologians and canonists wrestled with a number of questions related to sexual relations and marriage. Marriage is, characteristically, one of the avenues by which a society—especially a religious or holy community— attempts to define its boundaries. In this effort church authorities had, for centuries, proscribed both marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Christians. They had sought control over marital relations among Christian spouses by proscribing sexual contact before receiving communion, during Lent, or during a woman's pregnancy or menstrual cycle. They had also attempted to eliminate marriage among clergy, with occasional success, as part of an effort to define and control marital unions more effectively.
In Milton's description of the marriage of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, the entire Garden of Eden is seen to participate in the celebration of their union. Spousal and nature imagery are woven together, beauty and desire joined in the mystery of Adam's amazement at this gift of his “other self” newly received from God's hand. Says Adam of his wife,
To the nuptial bower
I led her blushing like the morn: all heaven,
And happy constellations on that hour
Shed their selectest influence; the earth
Gave sign of gratulation, and each hill;
Joyous the birds; fresh gales and gentle airs
Whispered it to the woods, and from their wings
Flung rose, flung odours from the spicy shrub,
Disporting, till the amorous bird of night
Sung spousal, and bid haste the evening star
On his hill top, to light the bridal lamp.
Joyous birds, whispering breezes, welcoming stars—they all share in the couple's holy delight in each other and in God.